Part of the seminar today was a work-in-progress workshop, which was really interesting and productive. One of the participants has just barely begun an investigation of environmentalists. He’s interested in why people become environmentalists, and how it might be possible to make more environmentalists. It’s a great project but I’m not going to talk about it, or the seminar, because they’re not mine to talk about. Instead I’m going to talk about my own thoughts as prompted by the seminar.
My anecdatal observation of environmentalists is that like other movement folk they come in a whole range of types and commitments, but that the ones who identify as environmentalists sometimes remind me of a cult. That is, they are possessors of a special knowledge that creates a privileged bond among them. By virtue of this knowledge and its associated practices they occupy a moral high ground about which they may be righteous and around which they create and share qualifying narratives. They are missionary to the masses about their special important truth, but because the mission is in tension with the valorizing exclusivity of their revelation, they may erect purity barriers to membership that guarantee limited success.
None of this, by the way, is meant to pronounce on the truth value of the revelation independent of these group shenanigans. I personally think attention and care for the environment are, on balance and subject to a variety of other priorities, good things. I see environmental degradation or destruction as inconvenient to a number of things I value. But saying it this way, in which the environment is one among a number of contingent values with no essentially-privileged moral content, disqualifies me as an environmentalist properly speaking, as does my failure to become an activist of the cause. Because at the identification threshold environmentalism tends to be a kind of fundamentalism.
Fundamentalists are people who commit themselves to thinking about things only one way, the ‘right’ way. They treat as premises what otherwise might seem to be conclusions, and as ends what might otherwise look like means. They may or may not be able to speak coherently about their premises and ends, but what they cannot do is see their premises or ends as contingent and optional. Fundamentalists therefore have a tense relationship with education, which is about becoming able to think about things many ways. Strictly speaking, fundamentalists are not in favor of education; their native communicative mode is indoctrination. In terms of William Perry’s scheme of intellectual and ethical development, fundamentalists are firmly planted in A. 1., “Dualism/Received Knowledge,” characterized by belief that “there are right/wrong answers, engraved on Golden Tablets in the sky, known to Authorities.”
Becoming a member of a fundamentalist cult like environmentalism generally involves indoctrination from youth, a conversion experience from another fundamentalism, or rescue from a wandering anomic wilderness. Otherwise the environment or the teachings of Jesus or the Pittsburgh Steelers are just one among many things one might value, albeit possibly uniquely compelling ones from time to time. Such a view would be consistent with Perry’s C. 6., “Pre-Commitment,” in which the necessity of exiting pure relativism and taking a stand is recognized, and D., “Commitment/Constructed Knowledge,” in which responsible stands are taken and then dynamically weighed against other possible stands. Of course a quite different kind of environmentalism is possible on this basis (please note that I’ve said this); and fundamentalists can make great allies for all one’s projects, as long as they don’t notice you have more than one, or go all Spanish Inquisition and piss off everyone in sight.
It’s either very difficult or very easy to talk with fundamentalists. Accepting their premises and ends makes for smooth but stereotyped conversation. The hard part is if you want to have a conversation that puts pressure on what they take for granted. This is because like anyone else, they have no way to make sense of statements outside their cognitive horizons; but unlike non-fundamentalists they are committed to keeping those cognitive horizons right where they are, rather than expanding them to take in unfamiliar or inimical conceptions. (Many of my students are similar to fundamentalists in their inability to think ‘outside their box’, but most differ from fundamentalists in being open to considering other options.) Under pressure from cognitive ‘otherness’ therefore fundamentalists tend to close into a self-referential reassertive loop and to ascribe disagreement of substance or emphasis to the ignorance, malevolence or cognitive deficiency of their interlocutors. Like friendly tourists in foreign lands, they may slow down, make careful eye contact and speak more loudly, but it never occurs to them to question the universal applicability of their own language.
This post is not meant to be particularly compelling or persuasive in itself; a certain general plausibility of the framing I do here would be a good outcome. Right now I’m seeing this as groundwork, later to be hidden, for an account of what a liberal arts general education core might be good for. Like Certeau, who I’ve been reading alongside this other stuff I’ve mentioned lately, I think a lot of the qualifying narratives for traditional liberal arts education have degenerated into dogma, themselves a fundamentalism of increasingly obscure values. I’m toying with the idea that what the liberal arts are actually good for is fundamentalism interception. They (we) work by putting what we and our students take for granted under the pressure of otherness. The payoff is not in some nebulous sense ‘breadth’ or ‘culture’, but a strategic flexibility, resilience and resourcefulness that make us less brittle in a world that often doesn’t share our sense of what matters. For this purpose one of the chief advantages of liberal arts content for our students is that it’s not interesting (it is not in their interest), but disinteresting. I’m still thinking this through, including Bourdieu’s cautionary observation that academics are people who have an interest in disinterest; let me know what you think.